By Tim Nasson
Whether you’re of my generation, who watched “The Golden Girls” during their original run, Saturday nights on NBC at 9:00pm, with their grandmother; or of an older generation who, with friends, gathered around the TV in your living room, cocktails in hand, laughing, sometimes so hard you cried; or were one of the many who flocked to gay clubs to watch the show with friends and strangers alike – those Saturday nights from 1985-1992 will never be forgotten, (epecially now that “The Golden Girls: Season One” is captured forever on DVD.)
“Isn’t it remarkable,” recalls the “Golden Girl” herself, Betty White, to me during a recent conversation at her home in Beverly Hills. “The gay bars, when we were on Saturday nights, first run, would shut down the music when the show came on and the dancing wouldn’t start back up again until the end credits were over. It was wonderful.”
Since the show’s debut twenty years ago, there has always seemed to be a fascination between gay men and boys and “The Golden Girls.” And Betty White, now eighty-two, thinks she knows why. “I think the gay community likes old ladies,” she says, laughing. “I know I get a tremendous amount of mail from men who talk about watching the show when they were growing up with their mothers or grandmothers, but mostly it’s the grandmothers that they watched with. Maybe, in a way, we were an extension. Maybe we were their surrogate grandmothers.”
While Betty White and the rest of the “Girls,” Estelle Getty, Bea Arthur and Rue McLanahan may be best known for their roles in the salty, senior sitcom, they each began their half century careers long before “The Golden Girls” hit the airwaves.
“I think most people of a certain age,” says White, speaking of anyone under forty, “thinks of me only as Rose,” from “The Golden Girls,” “but the older generation, of course, also knows me as Sue Ann from ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ where instead of playing the truly naïve Rose, I was the neighborhood nymphomaniac.” For that role, White won two Emmy Awards.
It will probably come as a surprise to most that for “The Golden Girls,” Betty White was originally cast as Blanche.
“They wrote the pilot with me as Blanche,” exclaims Betty White. “But Jay Sandrich, who directed me in many episodes on ‘MTM’ and was directing the pilot for ‘The Golden Girls’ piped in before we shot the pilot that if I was going to play another man-hungry neighborhood you-know-what, the audience was going to equate it with Sue Ann and just a continuation of her role. So he had the bright idea to have Rue, who was intended to play Rose, play Blanche. Rue had just come off ‘Mama’s Family,’ where she played a quiet and rather mousey sister. So it was a perfect switch, in hindsight, but I was a little scared. I knew Blanche. That would have been easy. I didn’t exactly know how to play dumb. The best advice I got was, again, from Jay Sandrich. He said, ‘Rose takes every word for its literal meaning. She knows no sarcasm, no nothing. If somebody said Rose could eat a horse, she’d call the SPCA.’ And Rue, my god, she took Blanche out into orbit where I would have never dared to go. So I just think it worked out beautifully. If I had half the sex life Blanche had I would have been dead from exhaustion.”
The fact that the show debuted and was successful, smack, dab in the middle of the Reagan era, with “The Cosby Show,” that clean, wholesome, American family television show as #1 in the ratings, was a feat unto itself. As anyone who has ever seen an episode knows, “The Golden Girls” are known for their off-colored jokes, constant talk about sex and everything in between.
“I think the secret that allowed us to get away with everything we did get away with was the fact that we were four old ladies,” says White. “Had we been four young women we wouldn’t have gotten away with anything. Blanche, having the sex life that everyone would be shocked at, had she been twenty, got away with it because of her age. We were past that youth thing. The writers had an incredible concept.” And in its first week on the air, in the fall of 1985, “The Golden Girls” debuted at #1, beating “The Cosby Show,” and for the rest of its first run, playing see-saw for the #1 position with “Cosby” each week. “Our show put Saturday night TV on the map,” says White. Before “The Girls” came along, no one watched TV on Saturday nights and now that they’re gone, no one does anymore.
While all four stars of “The Golden Girls” ended up winning Emmy Awards for Best Acting, some more than once, White was the first to win the coveted award. (Although, she was nominated for an Emmy a record seven times, all seven seasons during the show’s run, for Best Actress in A Television Comedy. Estelle Getty also was nominated for seven consecutive Emmys on “The Golden Girls,” and won one, but in the Supporting Actress category.)
“I was unfortunate and deeply fortunate at the same time to get the first Emmy Award for ‘The Golden Girls,'” explains White. “It was a little awkward on the set the next week when I had to go back to work. I tried to make it clear in my acceptance speech that it was a four-way award. There really was no way you could separate any of our performances. They were all tied into each other. But it was a little, shall we say, cool for about the first week back on the set, but then, when everybody started inning it was fine.
“You don’t get writing like that very often,” White continues, reflecting on “The Golden Girls.” “The writers were so ahead of the game and they had our characters so beautifully sorted out. We were like four points on a compass, each one distinct from the other. But they all blended so well that we didn’t have to stray from the script. We could just relax and enjoy that delicious writing.
“The writing is why people loved the show so much, I think. People still come up to me and tell me they have seen every episode a dozen times. And they each have their favorites. I even think the audience knows the lines now better than we ever did. Now you can give us all the credit you want. But we can’t save a badly written show. We can screw up a good show, but we can’t save a bad one. It’s the writing that allows the show to hold up.”
“I am kind of surprised that the show is being released on DVD,” says White. “It’s on TV all the time in syndication. It flatters me, though, that people love it so much that they want it to be part of their personal collection.”
And, of course, the DVD box set, sans commercials, is replete with extras, including Joan and Melissa Rivers dishing “The Girls'” sometimes outrageous wardrobes.”They might think the clothes are funny,” laughs Betty White, “but I and Bea and Rue still wear some of them.”
One of the characteristics, other than Rose’s naïveté, that made Rose, well so Rose, was her constant references to St. Olaf and those unpronounceable Scandinavian words. “That was something else,” White recalls. “All of the girls would usually be sitting around a kitchen table whenever Rose talked about St. Olaf. And the other three girls were just looking at me, having made their bets, wondering how fast I was going to screw up the pronunciation.”
Betty White, not happy with the way television sitcoms are headed today, has some advice for writers, as does her colleague, actress Doris Roberts, another multi-Emmy winning senior citizen actress. “It’s the writers who
have age block. The sitcoms today, for the most part, the ones that deal with all the kids,” says White, not
mentioning “Friends” by name, but certainly alluding to it, “don’t get it. The writers who are all young, because that’s what the network executives think works, write jokes that are funny this week but fall flat next week. The lack of good sitcoms today is because we need seasoned, good writers.”
I ask Betty White, hoping my hardest, if she and the “Girls” have any secret plans for a reunion television special. “Oh. The producers have asked and asked,” she says, with excitement. “They have asked so many times. And I think it would be wonderful, Rue thinks it would be wonderful, poor Sofia, I mean Estelle, is not well enough to do any more work, but Bea just doesn’t want to do it. And without her, it wouldn’t work. Look at how ‘The Golden Palace’ tanked, without her. She’s probably right. Quit while you’re ahead.”
Betty White, though not quite a “Golden Girl” anymore, is certainly in high demand, and as popular as ever. This
year, in fact, she was nominated for her fifteenth Emmy Award for her four week guest spot on “The Practice.” And she would love to work with David E. Kelly again, either on “Boston Legal” or anything else he has up his sleeve. “His writing is genius,” says White.
“The Golden Girls: Season One” on DVD is here, finally. The box set is now on store shelves just in time for the Holidays. Season Two is being released in May 2005.
Golden Girl Betty White Interview with Tim Nasson.